The music of Perfume Genius has grown increasingly tough and physical in recent years, something that seemed impossible a decade ago. The bruised piano ballads of early records like Learning and Put Your Back N 2 It were almost anti-physical, their performer sinking into fog with a whisper. “Take everything away”, he implores on the latter’s ‘17’. “This gnarled, weird face / This ripe swollen shape… Tuck the whole thing / In the body of a violin… I am done with it.”
Yet on 2017’s No Shape, Mike Hadreas found a way to reclaim his body through the power of abjection. On the swaggering and anthemic ‘Queen’, he danced for the first time. Now, his queer body was “cracked, peeling, riddled with disease”, but it also sashayed. He was an object of disgust, and proud of it.
The records that followed became more muscular, more danceable, and more joyful. Sure, they were still ragged, painful offerings, as you would expect from Perfume Genius, but they were also explosive and visceral. Ugly Season is the literal culmination of this era of physicality, and it’s also unlike anything he’s made before. Its songs originated in The Sun Still Burns Here, the 2019 dance performance Hadreas worked on with choreographer Kate Wallich. The resulting album is a half-formed thing, missing the visual it was clearly made for, but its looser structure allows for Hadreas to experiment with fresh ideas and satisfying genre fusions.
‘Eye On The Wall’ is among his best songs, a sprawling pitch-black disco cut from the netherworld, backed by ever-shifting percussion. Western guitars and witchy group vocals circle around each other before blissful pads light up the walls. It’s worth the price of admission on its own.
Elsewhere, the title track is freaked-out dub-reggae, with Hadreas rasping and contorting his vocal like a latter-day Scott Walker. Fittingly, it’s about as weird and satisfying as Bish Bosch. ‘Hellbent’ is another left turn – a harsh, droning piece that rides his occasional use of noise past the vanishing point.
Ambient, baroque-pop and neo-classical are the connective tissue on the album, though those experiments often fall into the background. ‘Teeth’ and ‘Harem’ especially read as soundtracks to performance rather than pieces that hold together on their own. Still, Ugly Season feels like a living entity. It’s fitting for an artist who’s finally found comfort and power in physicality.
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